Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: villains

Kristen Lamb, villains, craft, writing tips
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Many of us have been there. It’s late. We know we have “adulting” to do in the morning (which is in two hours). Our sensible self has been nagging us to get our @$$ to bed so long we smothered it with a pillow around midnight. Whether it’s a book, or Netflix or HBO or FX…we tell ourselves just one more episode. One more chapter. We can stop binging any time we want.

Suuuuuure…

Uh huh.

What is it that makes us lose all sense of responsibility and common sense when gut-hooked by these stories? By and large…VILLAINS.

But what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain? Or a villain who steals the show? Perhaps a villain who gains more fans than the HERO?

Excellent question.

To be blunt, villains are the soufflé of the character world. Preparation must be handled with utmost precision and care or it all goes FLAT.

Villains are among the most popular and memorable characters in all of storytelling history from Grendel to Darth Vader to Ramsay Bolton.

Yet, though these characters are extremely powerful, they’re (strangely) ridiculously tough to write. Villains can too easily become one-dimensional mustache-twirlers, too dumb to live, too boring to care, or just plain silly and unsympathetic.

I.e. Kylo-Ren, or as I like to call him, “Darth Emo”.

But, when writers do things right? It is the glorious Villain Soufflé writers are proud serve and readers/audiences cannot wait to devour….and then flat out stuff themselves half to death.

Face it, the hero is only as good as his/her opposition. The better the villain, the better the story. The better the story, the deeper the GUT HOOK. Want an audience who binges on your stories? There are many ways to do this, but nothing works quite like…

VILLAINS.

All righty, so today? Three critical ingredients for the perfect villain. Even though the villain character has limitless variations, we can at least address some NECESSARY ingredients that cover most every memorable villain.

Sort of like if you wanna make banana pudding, bananas are kind of a big deal. Yes, there are infinite variations of banana pudding but some ingredients have to be there or we don’t have banana pudding, we have something else entirely.

Villains are much the same.

Ingredient One—“Noble” Qualities

No blog worth its salt can discuss legendary villains without at least a nod to Game of ThronesIn fact, I could blog on villains for the next year using GoT and barely scratch the surface (of course it helps that George R.R. Martin has a cast of 2,312 characters).

Ah, Cersei though.

How we love to hate her. Yet, why does she resonate? Why does her character strike such a visceral chord? What makes her dimensional and real instead of a paper doll mustache twirling caricature?

First, she has “noble” qualities. She LOVES her family (her brother perhaps a bit too much for our comfort, but whatever). She’s a mother and will do anything for her kids to help, assist, promote, protect or even AVENGE them.

Literally.

She is fiercely devoted to her children (even a child as terrifying as Joffrey) and heaven help anyone who messes with her cubs. She’ll melt you with wildfire…then drop a city on you.

For reals. She did it

*Cersei drops mic then half of Westeros*

Most of us have kids, family, friends, loved ones, or even pets who we’d turn insta-psycho to protect…which is why we connect with Cersei. We share this powerful emotional vector which makes us hate her then root for her then hate ourselves for rooting for her.

Ingredient Two—A Sympathetic Viewpoint

Believe it nor not, Cersie possesses a highly sympathetic viewpoint. She’s a woman in a man’s world. Of all the Lannister children, SHE was the only one who paid attention, and who outpaced her brothers by a million miles regarding Rule with an Iron Fist/Throne 101.

SHE was the Lannister most qualified to rule, but instead, her father hands her off like chattel to marry a fat, sloppy, philandering joke of a leader, King Robert Baratheon (which explains a lot of why she chose Jaime *shivers*).

And it is this ever-pervasive powerlessness generated by the world she had no choice being born into that pisses her off more than a little (and rightfully so).

Her one brother Jaime has more interest in prancing around the country playing knight when he’s not in bed with her (*twitches a tad*) and the other brother Tyrion–in the beginning at least–is a drunken, womanizing, hard-partying dwarf she blames for her mother’s death.

She’s surrounded by men more “qualified” to rule from the Iron Throne and by “qualified” I mean they have man parts. The lion’s share of Cersei’s insane desire to gain the throne for one of her sons can be largely attributed to the fact that she believes she can rule vicariously through them and the requisite “man part.”

Of course after Season Six she’s there to blow $#!& up and she’s all out of children. High Sparrow is now a smoking crater glowing hotter than a Cherynobyl Ferris Wheel.

And that “Rule by Man Part Mandate”? She melted that, too…

The simple lesson is if Cersei had been born a man instead of a woman in a man’s world, a villain never would have manifested to begin with.

Remember this when crafting your villain.

In fact, though often we loathe Cersei, a lot of us gals can kinda sorta sympathize. Some of us wouldn’t have minded a few caskets of wildfire to unload on the last sales meeting.

You know the one.

That meeting where the boss’s drinking/golfing buddy who’s never had an original thought in his life stole your idea then landed your promotion solely because he possessed Mystical Man Part Powers.

Yeah.

And for the guys? Despite the Mystical Man Part Power, you have your own version of this “powerless and %$#ed over” scenario, which brings us to…

Ingredient Three—The Villain is the Hero of His Own Story

Moving away from Game of Thrones…. *pries fingers loose*

Why do we SO love Loki? Because Loki kind of has a good point and is the hero of his own story. In ways he is the male version of Cersei.

Bear with me.

For those who’ve slept since Thor released in 2011, Thor is the movie where we first met the Tom Hiddleston Loki we all know and love and hate…but mostly love.

In Thor, we’re tossed into a tale as old as time—sibling rivalry.

In the movie, Odin has created a fragile truce between Asgard and the Ice Giants. When the Ice Giants make a sudden play to retrieve the Casket, Thor (about to ascend as the new king) directly disobeys his father’s orders and runs off full of himself, all half-cocked and ready to do some damage.

Thor has zero concept of this little thing called “consequences.” Loki, however, does appreciate consequences both for Thor and the realm and his family, and is actually a far better choice to rule Asgard.

Loki, ever loyal, genuinely loves and cares about Thor (and the kingdom), and goes along with Thor’s raid on the enemy…all the while trying to talk Thor out of being a dip$#!t.

Alas, Thor’s asshattery creates a mass mayhem and places the kingdom in peril. Thor makes enough of a mess that Odin essentially puts Thor in the Asgardian version of TIME OUT—which apparently involves New Mexico.

This “punishment” only further demonstrates Odin isn’t truly punishing Thor, because everyone knows Lubbock, Texas is the far superior location for an Asgardian TIME OUT if Odin was serious about making Thor miserable.

Odin also decides to take a nap instead of putting Loki in charge, even though Loki’s still left to clean up the giant mess Thor made.

Giant mess, get it? I kill myself. Moving on…

In the midst of all this, Loki discovers his whole life is a lie, including his identity, and he experiences betrayal coupled with personal extinction.

He resents Odin for a vast number of legit reasons, but mostly he hates Odin for ever considering a selfish buffoon like Thor to rule Asgard. Thus, Loki sets out to prove his worthiness to his real father and place the realm under New Management.

With all Loki has endured, how he’s been betrayed, and his goal that the realm be ruled by “cooler” heads—pardon the pun—we the audience find it tough not to see Loki has some seriously valid gripes.

We see he really IS the hero in his own story.

In the End

I’ve given y’all three basic, but critical ingredients for a villain readers will love to hate or maybe even love. Villains are incredibly fun to write, but since they’re by nature unstable, volatile and often combustable, they need to be handled with care.

I’m teaching a brand new class Villains and Anti-Heroes TOMORROW and that’s where we get time to deep dive the really cool stuff, so I hope you will join me! I have been STOKED to teach this more advanced class and had to move it due to losing my voice last week, so y’all got another shot at signing up (recording is free with the class if you can’t make it in person).

I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! And I am NOT above BRIBERY!

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? Who are some of your favorite villains from the page or even the screen, small or big?

Which villains resonated with you and WHY? Which villains do you remember years later? You never get tired of re-watching the show or movie or rereading the book? What villains make you binge watch? Trade gas money for Netflix?

What do you WIN? For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

We are in the process of moving classes around due to the two MONSTER hurricanes so a fresh class list will be available next post. You can also dash over to W.A.N.A. International to check out what’s coming up and get your spot!

 

 

 

One of the major issues with first-time novels is that the young writer fails to understand what a novel really is. All great stories are about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS. More specifically? Every good story has one core problem in need of being resolved. Granted, there will be many other problems along the way, but they are the setbacks and are all related to solving the core problem.

The trouble is that many of us got our “author training” in school, which really is no training at all. That purple prose that scored us an A on our college short story won’t get us far in the world of commercial storytelling. Additionally, pretty prose might be fine for keeping a five page or ten page short story interesting, but it falls apart under a body as weighty as a novel.

The new writer often senses this, so will work in navel-gazing and inner demons and then random bits of stuff going wrong and, instead of a well-structured story where tension and drama flow organically? We end up with melodrama.

Our “novel” then devolves into Days of Our Lives where nothing is really happening. Conflict is manufactured instead of inherent. “Bad stuff” is happening because the writer needs it to, not because “bad stuff” was inevitable.

How do we fix this?

Antagonists

The antagonist is a highly confusing topic. Hell, it confused me for years which is why I came up with my own term, which we will discuss today. Remember we said every story must have a core story problem?

That core story problem is created by the antagonist.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum.

Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead. The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Yes villains are always antagonists but antagonists are not always villains.

Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

This series is to explore the many facets of the most important element in fiction. Today, we are going to begin with what I call the BBT–or Big Boss Troublemaker. Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I simplified things.

No BBT and you have no story. The BBT is not always bad or evil. The BBT simply creates the core story problem in need of being resolved.

Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the core story problem. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle (Act Three).

The lead up to the show-down with the BBT is responsible for creating our story tension. Will the protagonist evolve and triumph, or will he fail?

In commercial fiction, it is generally easier to spot the BBT.

No Sauron and no need for the Hobbits to leave the Shire.

No Darth Vader, no reason for Luke to leave Tatooine.

No Buffalo Bill, and Agent Starling is left doing paperwork.

This might seem simple enough, but time after time I get new manuscripts where there is no core story because there is no BBT. I get fantasy or science fiction manuscripts with a lot of fancy world-building and magic and bad stuff happening, but no core party responsible for a singular problem….so it all just fizzles.

Even in more literary works there is also a BBT and that BBT must have a face despite all we heard about man versus man, man versus religion, man versus nature, man versus society, etc. in school.

When the BBT is not corporeal? This is when things get tricky. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why we then need the proxy.

Let’s explore these.

Man Against Society

Whatever larger idea your protagonist is battling, that idea will need a manifestation. For instance, in The Hunger Games trilogy, “the system” is represented by Snow. The story is not over until Snow is defeated and his defeat marks the system’s defeat.

In The Help, the BBT is racism, but it is manifested in the white socialites who mistreat the maids (I.e. Hilly Holbrook). “Racism” is defeated when the socialites are defeated.

Man Against Nature

Some new writers take this as man fighting bad weather, but really? Who wants to read about bad weather for 300 pages? Often these stories are not about the weather at all, but rather what the weather reveals in people.

For instance, In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely the impetus that brought forth the real BBT…pride which was manifested in the captain, Billy Tyne?

The fishermen are suffering. They are on the verge of losing homes and marriages because of their dire economic situation. The captain decides to do one final fishing voyage even though it is the most dangerous time of the year. When the fisherman go out, they land the catch of a lifetime, but the refrigeration system breaks.

They are faced with a choice. Let the fish rot and then it was all for nothing. Or they can risk everything and take on the perfect storm (pride).

In my POV, the story is never man against nature, it is man against himself and nature is simply the catalyst.

Man Against Himself

No one wants to read a book of nonstop navel gazing. Thus if your character’s worst enemy is himself/herself? You need a proxy. The BBT will represent the particular aspect you are seeking to destroy and then the BBT will have a face.

For instance, in the movie 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but it is represented in the proxy Jasper, the hard-partying boyfriend who fuels and normalizes Gwen’s addiction.

Gwen is her own worst enemy. She must defeat her own alcoholism. But this will be manifested when she can finally see herself as an addict and walk away from the life of addiction (where Jasper is its representative).

We could go on forever on this topic, but we won’t. Just pay attention to your favorite stories and see if you can pinpoint the BBT and then notice how it is always the protagonist-turned-hero who will face off with him/her/it at the end.

Some Pretty Hard and Fast BBT Rules—Break these Rules at Your Own Risk

Rule #1—BBT (or a proxy of the BBT)  MUST be introduced in Act I. No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.

Rule #2—In ROMANCE, the love interest cannot be the BBT. Romance has rules and this is a big one. Now, in romance, the love interest will take on the role of antagonist in scenes, but they cannot be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Romance is all about the HEA (happily ever after)

Feel free to break this rule, but I will warn you that when the BBT is the love interest, it is no longer a romance. It becomes Women’s Fiction 😉 .

Rule #3–BBT MUST be defeated in your book. Period.

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. Nope. Sorry. Try again.

There are two types of series. One type is connected only because of the protagonist. Detective books for instance (I.e. Harry Bosch books). In these it is pretty easy to see that the BBT must be defeated in each book.

The second type of series is connected through a singular story, but the thing is, each book will have a mini-BBT that marks the culmination of that part of the story. So I get it, your “Sauron” is not defeated in Book One, but that doesn’t absolve you of the Big Boss Battle for that book.

(Book I) BBT–> (Book II) BIGGER BBT–> (Book III) EVEN BIGGER BBT—> (Book IV) HOLY MOLY! AN EVEN BIGGER BBT!!!!

In the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, each movie had it’s own BBT. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie wasn’t over until the showdown against the Uruk-Hai who is actually a minion of Saruman (The Two Towers) who is a minion of the Big Guy, himself…Sauron (defeated in The Return of the King). Each movie has a Big Boss Battle against that movie’s BBT. If we panned back, each movie would make up one Act of a larger 3 Act whole.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

I LOVE hearing from you! And if you want me to look at your writing, make sure you check out my Hooked class. I am offering levels that come with edits from MOI! *smooch* And I only do this class a couple times a year so sign up and get your spot.

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Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

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American Horror Story "Freak Show" on FX
American Horror Story “Freak Show” on FX

This past Saturday I held my Bullies & Baddies class and a couple of the folks posited a really good question worth talking about. How do we write great villains? One of the reasons I love holding this class is that all stories require a core antagonist (who is responsible for generating the story problem in need of resolution), but there are different types of antagonists. All villains are antagonists but not all antagonists are villains.

But since we went there, what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain?

I watch a ton of movies and television series. I also read around three novels a week. I’m always studying, breaking stories apart so that I can understand them better. I do it for my fiction, but also so I can share what I learn with you guys.

Though the series isn’t for everyone (it’s pretty gory), I particularly love FX’s American Horror Story for studying villains. AHS is one of those shows that you have to get a few episodes into before you connect, namely because it is often cast with truly despicable characters.

It isn’t until you get a few episodes in that the writers start peeling back the layers and exposing the delicate undersides of the villains…and that’s when you really begin to care for them.

I know. Seriously. AHS is some of the best writing out there.

Jessica Lang almost always plays the core antagonist in each season of AHS (though she was absent in Season Five and it was evident). Of all the seasons, though, Season Four Freak Show was my favorite and that’s what I am going to use today. Btw, there is a bit of spoiler alert, but it’s necessary. So what do we do to really make the villain POP?

Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Elsa Mars (via FX)
Elsa Mars (via FX)

In Season Four of AHS, Lang plays Elsa Mars. Mars is a self-centered, lying, conniving, murderous woman. But she is a deeply flawed and tragic character. Her goal is two-fold. First, she wants to become a star in Hollywood. Secondly, she wants to build the best Freak Show in the world.

As a young woman, Elsa is victimized by a man who promises her the starring role in a movie. What he fails to tell Elsa is she has the starring role in a snuff film. He films another man taking a buzz saw to both of Elsa’s legs then leaves her for dead. Through the sympathy and miraculous skill of an artist-sculptor, she’s saved and given life-like prosthetics and appears “normal.”

But this tragedy creates a horrible insecurity. She starts the Freak Show because deep down, she knows she’s a freak too. This makes her feel almost a maternal duty to collect the disfigured. To gather the tragic souls the world casts away and give them a home.

The Villain is the Hero of His/Her Own Story

Elsa is a mother figure. Under the circus tent, her “children” are stars and they are a family. She knows what life outside the show is like for a freak (she’s lived it). She also appreciates that she is a very different kind of freak. She has the ability to blend into society. Her children do not.

Make the Villain Conflicted

Mars is a very troubled and conflicted character. Her goal to take care of her charges and her desire to become famous in Hollywood are always in conflict. Also what makes Elsa so good is also what makes her so bad. She is relentlessly ambitious (good), but she is relentlessly ambitious (bad).

Remember that our best self and our worst self are often opposing edges of the same blade. This is true for protagonists (heroes) as well.

I see this even in myself. I have a compulsive personality. This is good (1000+ blogs), but can be very, very bad. I latch onto something like a pit bull and don’t let go…but sometimes I’ve latched onto something I should let go of (every ex-boyfriend ever).

As I like to say…

There is a fine line between persistent and stupid.

The reason this duality makes for a layered villain is that great fiction acts as a mirror and reflects a degree of reality back to the reader. When the reader sees the duality of the villain, she is also seeing the duality in herself. That is the part that can be deeply disturbing.

Maybe we believe we are incapable of murder, but are we really? Or have we simply been blessed with the right life circumstances that have permitted us to never have to really get an answer to that question?

Give the Villain Noble Goals

To dovetail off the last point I made, Elsa does some truly detestable things…but we do see there is a not-so-evil motivation behind her actions. Thus, we sympathize and I think that is one of the ways a good villain can truly get to us.

We see the ugliness in ourselves, the great evil we might be capable of in the right situation.

Elsa is profoundly insecure. It’s part of the reason she created the Freak Show to start with. If she owns and runs the show, she can be the main attraction. But again, Elsa’s goals collide with the intensity of a tectonic plate shift.

She knows the show has to make money because she clothes and feeds and shelters her “monsters”. But, to be blunt? She’s also greedy. So when another act overshadows her own? Her greed and her insecurity collide.

Make the Villain’s End a Sad Event

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 10.18.36 AM

For me, the best villains are the ones we almost are silently rooting for and are really bothered by that. Elsa is one of those characters that in one episode you hate her and in the next you’re rooting for her and the end of the season is beautiful and tragic.

My friend NYTBSA James Rollins says he knows he’s done his job when the reader cries for the villain at the end.

This is also why NYTBSA Allison Brennan and I have had a long-running argument that Hannibal Lecter is actually not a villain but an antihero. Allison thinks he’s a villain, but I posit that Hannibal is written SO well, he actually transcends those boundaries and becomes the antihero.

Y’all KNOW you cheered at the end of Silence of the Lambs when he said he was “having an old friend for dinner.” And what is SO EPIC about this is that the guy he is going to eat is a law abiding citizen who technically has done nothing illegal…but we still are rooting for Hannibal (a serial killer).

And that freaks us out more than a little bit.

Another great villain? The Goblin King from Labyrinth. Every woman over the age of 30 is still wondering why the hell Sarah didn’t take the deal.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 10.20.07 AM

Now For This Little Slice…

There is another kind of villain, a villain who deeply upsets us and who’s end is a joyous event. We cheer. We don’t want this type of villain defeated. We don’t want them dead.

We want them OBLITERATED. Salt the very earth of their soul.

Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer has the best example of this type of villain. The movie is great but the novel? O…M…G. The villain is positively terrifying.

Why?

Namely because this villain exemplifies what we fear most (and what protagonist Mickey Haller also fears).

That we won’t recognize pure evil when we see it.

At first glance, Roulet is the guy every girl would love to land. He’s smart, rich, handsome and charming. But is is a stone cold killer who exacts suffering for his own pleasure. What makes this character so disturbing is, like Haller, we believe Louis Roulet is innocent and that he’s been the victim of a terrible scam.

So when we hit that pivot point where we realize we’ve been duped? It rattles us to the core.

This type of villain will exhibit the same traits mentioned above, but they are all a deception. This villain is a venus flytrap who looks like a good guy but is only death disguised.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, Roulet has a sympathetic goal. He is an innocent man who’s been set up by a prostitute who is framing him so she can sue him for damages in civil court and use him as her ticket out of turning tricks.

Roulet is conflicted. He fails to share various pieces of vital information with his lawyer because he is “protecting his mother.” He doesn’t want to upset her and he cares deeply about her perception of him (I.e. he fails to mention he was going to Reggie Campo’s place to pay for sex).

Roulet has noble goals. For instance, he explains that the reason he carries a knife is because he discovered his mother (also a real estate agent) raped and brutalized in a home she was showing. He tells Haller that real estate agents often meet clients in homes alone and there is no real way to vet that they aren’t psychos (um irony), so he carries for protection.

Notice how Connelly hits on ALL the notes of a villain, but camouflages them as a hero.

THIS is why our world turns upside down when we realize it is all a lie. Roulet does not have a sympathetic goal at all! He’s a sado-mysogynistic killer and his only goal is to exact suffering…then destroy another man’s life by framing him for his crime.

This villain is not conflicted at all. He is very well aware of what he’s doing. He’s narcissistic and believes he is above the rules that govern society.

He does not have noble goals. His goals are as black as they come. This is why, unlike a villain like Elsa Mars, when Roulet meets his end? We cheer. In fact, regarding this, I actually prefer the ending in the movie where Roulet is badly beaten by Haller’s motorcycle gang clients before being hauled to jail.

A good way to make this kind of villain work is to create a deflection. Cast an innocent character as the “villain”.  It is essentially a “bait and switch.” In the case of Roulet, the prostitute he brutalized carried the mantle of villain until Act Two.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? What are some of your favorite villains from the page or even the screen?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Upcoming Classes!!!

Remember that all WANA classes are recorded so if you miss, can’t make it or just want to refresh the material, this is included with purchase price. The classes are all virtual and all you need is a computer and an Internet connection to enjoy!

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages MAY 14th. The first five pages are one of our best selling tools. We fail to hook the reader and that is a lost sale. In this class, we go over the art of great beginnings. Additionally, the upper levels Gold and Platinum I actually LOOK at your pages and critique your actual writing. I am offering DOUBLE PAGES for FREE so this is a fantastic opportunity to get feedback from a pro.

When Your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors MAY 16th. The single largest challenge all writers face in the digital age is discoverability. In a sea of infinite choices, connecting with our audience can be a nightmare. Our brand is our lifeline. What is a brand? How do we create one? How do we entice an overwhelmed and distracted audience to connect and care? How do we develop this brand over time? How can we make this brand resilient to upheavals? How can this brand then grow and evolve as we grow and evolve?

Blogging for Authors MAY 20th. Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

 

 

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Before we get started, I’d like to remind anyone who wants a WAY better chance at winning my 20 Page Death Star Critique, that I have started the Dojo Diva Blog and we are talking about Beginnings, namely giving ourselves permission to be NEW. Comments and trackbacks on the Dojo Diva count double and, since it is a separate contest, there is a LOT better chance of winning.

Moving on. VILLAINS!!!!

The antagonist is the most critical part to any story. No antagonist, NO story. Villains are only a type of antagonist and though this type of character has the power to be legendary, often what we see in books, series and movies are mustache-twirling caricatures. Villains can easily become one-dimensional plot puppets.

As writers, we must get in the head of our villains as much if not more than the protagonist. The reason is that eventually our protagonist must eventually grow to become a hero, and this is not possible if we fail to appreciate the goals, conflicts and motivations of the villain.

Plain and simple: The villain creates the STORY problem and provides the crucible that will create a hero.

No Sauron and Hobbits remain in the Shire wishing for adventure. No Darth Vader and who cares about Skywalker? No Goblin King and Sarah never faces the Labyrinth and her own immaturity.

I recommend studying movies to understand story structure, but I feel TV series are better for understanding the character development of villains. The reason is that series are far more similar to full-length novels. We (the audience) have more TIME to understand the villain and see him or her at work.

Today, I’d like to talk about ways that we can give villains depth. Great villains have some similar “components.”

Remember, the villain is always the hero in his own story. Wanting to “rule the world” just to “rule the world” is for cartoons. If a villain is wanting to rule, control, destroy, etc. they should have a really good/plausible/sympathetic reason for doing so.

In factwhen we do a great job at creating the villain, our audience will struggle with who to root for.

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Granted, we do run into great characters like Joker (Heath Ledger) who are chaotic evil, but though this type of character might be great for a Batman movie, he will be really tough to cast in a novel. Even then, I’d go so far as to say that Joker DID have an agenda. Whether it was trauma or madness, we get a sense that Joker believes there is no good in the world and is on a mission to prove any goodness can be corrupted.

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Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Remember that the beating heart of a story is CONFLICT. Antagonist wants X and Protagonist wants Y. Their goals conflict and only one can triumph at the end. No cheating. In act three the Big Boss Troublemaker must be defeated. Period. None of this well the reader meets my antagonist in Book Two…

Every story has an antagonist responsible for the story problem and he or she must be defeated or the story isn’t complete.

***In series, the protagonist will defeat proxies of the core antagonist. Each proxy serves as the core antagonist for that story.

To help you guys wrap your heads around what I am talking about, let’s look at television shows. I highly recommend the series Justified for dimensional villains. In every season we are introduced to a new Big Boss Troublemaker. Season one is the Skinhead Bank Robber Boyd Crowder. Season Two is the Hillbilly Mob Boss Mama Bennett. Season Three is the Detroit Mob Boss Robert Quarles who’s been exiled to Kentucky to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of the Bennett clan.

What I LOVE about Justified is that the characters are dimensional and interesting. Also, each season nicely dovetails into the next with authentic human problems. This isn’t just a series for those interested in writing about crime. There are genuine human problems in this series.

Today, though, I want to hone in on what I feel is one of THE best villains I’ve ever seen: Mama Mags Bennett.

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What is Mags’ goal? Yes, she wants to rule Harlan, Kentucky and surrounding areas with an iron fist (and make a healthy profit), but deep down, she believes she is taking care of her flock. She maintains order in a world riddled with chaos. The area is steeped in poverty, endless economic depression, addicts, jailbirds, absentee parents, lost youth, and troublemakers and she provides authority, protection and structure.

Yes, she is taking advantage of the people, but believes she is the lesser of evils. Her family has been on that mountain for generations and have been there to pick of the pieces every time a corporation has raped the area after promising prosperity. She believes that there will be predators, so might as well go with the devil you know and the one who isn’t going to take all the timber, strip mine the minerals and ruin the land with slag.

And frankly, she has a good point.

Also, because the area is riddled with addicts, she knows that bigger predators have their eyes on the area (I.e. Miami Mafia and Mexican cartels) and have no concern for the people. Yes, she provides weed, meth and oxycotin, but also provides jobs and protection. She also protects members of the flock from smaller predators. For instance, she will NOT tolerate a child molester and goes biblical on anyone who crosses that line.

Thus, we as the audience see she kind of has a good point. The area will likely always be lawless, so why not be ruled by a local who cares for the community?

Contrast

Great villains have contrast. Contrast makes a villain sympathetic. If a villain is always torturing people and doing bad stuff simply to do bad stuff, the audience can’t really connect. We have to have some area where that villain is human.

The entire season (series ) is loaded with contrast and there is no character more conflicting that Mags Bennett. First of all, let’s just look at some of the surface contrast.

Hillbilly Mafia

Dixie Mafia

These words don’t go together. When we think of Mafia, we often think of black suits and shiny Lincolns. When we hear “Dixie” we think of line-dancing, moonshine and banjos. We don’t default to dirty flannel, banjos and ruthless drug enforcers.

Yet, one element that has always made mob members so intriguing is their loyalty to family.

Helloo? Ever heard of the Hatfields and McCoys?

This area of the country is steeped in a profound loyalty to clan and family, thus it unexpectedly makes the perfect mob story.

Mags is so interesting namely because we can never seem to get a bead on her. When we meet her, she seems to be this sweet, gentle grandmotherly figure (which she is). She runs a country store and makes sure the local families can use their food stamps and welfare checks to put food on the table.

Yet, this same matronly character is later seen breaking her son’s fingers with a hammer because his bad decisions have jeopardized their larger operations and brought the attention of federal marshals. Granted, she cries the entire time and hates having to “correct” her son, but she knows if she shows any weakness of favoritism with her own kin, she will lose power and respect.

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Thus, we SEE this woman do terrible things, but she always has a sympathetic reason (as to point above). Yes, it is awful that she breaks her son’s fingers, but she is genuinely afraid her son’s idiocy will get him killed or imprisoned, thus her “chastisement” is the far less severe of the consequences.

In her mind, she is saving him from himself.

The Villain Fires the Conflict for the Protagonist

Great villains torment some part of the protagonist’s soul. For the protagonist, it can be black and white to take out a bad guy, but that isn’t nearly as messy. In the case of Justified Raylan Givens is a federal marshal who also grew up in the area. He knows Mags and even likes her. He is torn between his duty to uphold the law and his personal history and feelings.

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Taking out Mags is emotionally messy. And, though Raylan is the perfect person to shut her down, he kinda wishes someone else could have the task. Mags brings back old guilt, memories, shame, regrets and baggage.

Make The Villain’s End a SAD Thing

In Justified we hate Mags, we are rightfully afraid of her, but we also feel for her. She does a lot of really awful things, and though we want her stopped, we want her undoing to be appropriate. She’s like a man-eating bear. Sure we want the bear to be put down, but caging it and putting it in the circus seems unreasonable and unfit.

When Mags is taken down, we walk away feeling that her end was just and appropriate to the apex predator she was.

What are your thoughts? Do you think series are better for exploring villains and antagonists? Do you think they are a better cross-comparison with a novel? What are some series with memorable villains? How did the villain leave you conflicted? Did you find yourself rooting for the villain and little bit sad when he or she lost?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

I’ve run critique groups for almost eight years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a few years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.

Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.

As I have said in previous posts, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda.  No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.

Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.

Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).

When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.

Too  many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn ;).

So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.

Back to antagonists and structure…

When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.

Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.

Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.

Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One

In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.

When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.

In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.

Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?

Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Villains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.

Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.

Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.

For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.

Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.

Some outstanding references to help you guys:

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.

James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit

What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen.  I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.

What about you guys? I love hearing your opinions and thoughts.

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Winner’s Circle

Winner of 5 Page Critique is Joseph Kurtenbach. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

Winner of 15 Page Critique is Jennifer Jensen. Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant as well.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!